When you think about successful creatives or artists, you would probably conjure the image of weird people prone to flights of fancy, brilliant sure, but often capricious, unstable, or unreliable. You would imagine that they value large swatches of unstructured time and need complete freedom to be creative and do their work. You would probably think they wake up every day at different times to do different things. You would be very wrong.
About 2 years ago, I came across the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He compiled and highlighted the diverse rituals and routines of famous accomplished artists, scientists and philosophers. From Salvador Dali to Chris Ofili, they all had something in common apart from their great minds and accomplishments. They had their specific routines and rituals.
See, to be productive and successful, especially over a long period of time and consistently, you cannot just rely on inspiration or on the ‘feeling’. The creative muse is notoriously fickle. You have to embrace structure. It is that structure that ultimately frees you to be creative, to explore vast ideas and birth something new.
Like all things in the universe, it’s a delicate dance of opposites.
The creative muse is be balanced and even enhanced by routine. As individuals, doubly so as creatives, we are faced with chaos on a daily basis. There is the noise within – the voices in our head, our anxieties and hopes and fears. And there is the noise without – society, traffic, bosses, clients, the needs and requests from family. There is a lot that can derail your work and path. Routines and rituals become the guards that protect it.
Routines and rituals do two main things. They provide and defend the time needed to do the work, and they provide the right conditions to do good work. They direct the chaos of the day, the chaos of the mind and set them across well-defined paths every day. It is the only way to get any real work consistently done over time and move towards accomplishing your goals and maximizing your potential.
I have been telling people lately, that if you want to embark on a creative project, like doing podcasts, writing a book, or working on a business – you have to bake in the process into your daily life. You have to create a routine for it. Otherwise, it will never get done. What is not scheduled, does not happen.
For instance, I generally write my blog posts on Sunday. It is part of my ritual to prep for the week. It usually follows a set pattern. I sit down at my desk, I meditate for 15 mins, then I journal, mind dumping whatever is going on upstairs, and only then am I clear enough to write something. Afterwards, I plan my week and get into some work.
Of course, many times, for whatever reason, that does not happen. Some Sundays, I’m out with friends or doing something else. But I still have to execute the ritual when I can, on a Monday or Tuesday morning, whenever I do get the chance to get it done. The point is, the ritual facilitates production. It gives me a set time to work and provides the conditions necessary for good creative work.
The idea of ritual shows up everywhere, even in doing the work itself. To be effective at designing and solving problems, I have to use certain patterns. I follow processes, either documented or subconsciously. I dig into the issue at hand first, letting it fill my mind. Then I have to explore ideas and look at incredible work by others to prime my mind. Then I sketch and design and test till I get something. And I need to have the phone off for hours sometimes just to really get that focus and enter the right zone to produce good work. If I disrespect any of these conditions, the work suffers.
Routines and rituals go a long way.
It is how we trust the process.
It is how we get what we want, how we maximize our potential. It is where living intentionally really becomes tangible in your life. By designing your life in line with your goals. Putting in the conditions and systems to make it work. You focus on winning the day-to-day. Because if you win at executing the most important thing on a daily basis, over time the actions compound to deliver you great wins.
Your routine would look very different from mine. We all have what works for us. In Mason’s book, the routines of artists varied wildly. Some woke up nice and early starting work at 9am like Chris Ofili, others like Pablo Picasso could not be bothered before 2pm. The point is, they found a rhythm that worked for them and maximized their creative output.
However you do it, start right and end right.
We all have the same 24 hours, beginning our days at some point, and ending them at another. In the time between waking and sleeping, we have things to do, obligations to fulfil and projects to execute. If we want to crush it. We have to pay attention to how we start and how we end. A good morning routine sets the pace for the day. A good wind-down routine at the end of the day helps us get a good night sleep and start the next day on the right note. With those two things created and applied consistently, we supercharge our lives, our creativity and productivity. A good routine takes care of the important little things – a noisy mind, unclear focus, eating, etc and allows us to focus on actually doing the work.
A week and a half ago, I was in a deep funk, like I mentioned to my email list. For whatever reason, I entered a dark place, feeling unbalanced, feeling doubtful. Until I came across this video, and had two epiphanies – one, I am not my mind, which is a topic for another day, and two, I should get back to some kind of routine. So, the next day, I woke up, I exercised, I meditated, I visualized, I journaled, and went on to have a very productive day. Like magic, the darkness lifted.
Turns out, all I needed was to get back into rhythm. That’s the power of a good routine.
Another meditation on the process and experience of getting things done.
The last stretch of any serious project is usually the most grueling part of the whole ordeal. It is almost like birthing. The bulk of it has a lot of work sure – conceptualizing, designing and building, but that last bit, getting it across the finishing line, is super intense.
That’s when emotions are at an all-time high. You are tired from all the work so far. At this point, you doubt the validity of the entire project. On one hand, you wonder if you have wasted all your time and effort to get here. On the other, you just want to finish the damn thing and get it out your sight.
But if in the midst of all that strain and pressure, you are still here, still in the game, then you know you have yourself a winner. You love what you do, so much so that you are willing to embrace a high level of suffering and anguish just to get it done.
There is a key thing about getting things done that is important to note. This is especially true if you are working strategically. There is a lag time between effort and results. In a world, where we expect everything with microwave immediacy, this can be jarring. We expect everything fast; the lag violates that expectation.
If you are building something important, especially if you are still in the early-ish stages, there is a lag time that you have to be patient with. You need to be patient and disciplined.
If you are working with intention, you have identified a ginormous goal, something you are working towards. You have also looked at the short term and figured out what the next most important thing to do is.
So, you are working on it and pushing. Especially if it is product development – writing a book, creating a course, designing clothing, designing a business, creating a website, it’s a lot of work upfront. And while you are making the thing, you are getting no feedback from the market place beyond whatever testing you are doing. There is no validation, no emotional boost from likes on Instagram. It is just pure grunt work.
It takes discipline to keep pushing and working on it for weeks, months, even years without tangible results. It takes discipline to push and get the important things done, knowing that you might only see the impact in a year or in the next 5. But that is the core of true strategic intent and level-headed execution. Doing things now that will pay off much later.
The lag is also a call to be clear-headed and practice accurate attribution. Know where your results are coming from.
Where you are right now is as a result of the choices and actions you took years ago. From the habits to the results in your life, the place you live, the job you have, and the money you make. To move yourself to a new place, you have to invest in new actions and habits now. But for the change to be visible, it will take time and you have to be prepared for that.
It is in the lag that people lose heart and quit. In the lag all you have is the work, and your dream. You look around and people seem to be moving on without you. While you toil and labor away in obscurity to create your vision. Seth Godin also refers to it as the dip – the chasm between the start and finish of a project, the valley that separates those serious about achieving the goal, and those who are mildly interested.
The lag does not mean you are failing. The lag means your reality is still catching up with all the changes and actions you are making. You have to stay strong, you have to stay the course and keep pushing. But how do you know the difference between lag and actual failure? Maybe the fact that nothing is happening really means that your project, vehicle, business is not adequate to get you where you want to go.
You don’t. It is a tricky thing to figure out, but there are ways to mitigate the risk.
Because there is a lag time from effort to results, there is something I like to do in designing the projects I work on. When I take on a project, I set intentions for both the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario. I design it so that if it works out really well, the potential upside is very high. Which is why exercising leverage by working on important projects is key. A successful one can literally change your life. But I always like to bake in success into the failure scenario too. Even if this project fails, I have most likely used it also to gain new skills, new knowledge, new network, new insight.
I have been spending the past few months working on the next level of my business, and I have spent time designing the website, designing the way the company functions and learning so many new things about customer research, product development, communications, hiring, business plans, investments, and so on. It has been a long road so far, and an even longer road ahead. But here’s the thing about this exercise. Even if I launched everything the way I have been planning and it fails epically, I would have still gained a lot from the process. I would have learned more about business than I would have otherwise.
But if I succeed, I win big. All the planning and set up lays the foundation for explosive and exponential results. Because once the lag has passed and the results start coming in. They come in fast!
This is why we focus on the process. Because that is what this is. A process. Getting successful is a process, staying successful is a process. The process is all we have, not the results. So, we mind the lag. We recognize it, but we stay focused on the day-to-day, on creating the plan, executing the plan, recording the results, adjusting the plan, executing again, reviewing the results, ad infinitum, until we get what we want, maximize our potential, or run out of time.
We don’t know how long this will take. We don’t care. All we care about is handling today’s task. This is a lifestyle now, this is just how we do. And it is what we will do, till we are past the lag and the harvest comes.
There is a famous line in the 1999 cult classic Fight Club
The things you own end up owning you.
And I’m reminded of it every time I look at my phone. Now, it is one of the greatest tools we have ever created. At any point in time, I am connected to a vast network of human knowledge. I have the potential to reach out to almost anyone in the world or even to reach a large number of people at once. It is an incredibly useful tool.
But instead, most of the time I am held hostage by it. I pick up my phone up to 150 times a day. That’s an incredible amount of time. I’m a bit better, over the years I have slowed down my use of Twitter, Facebook…Instagram I’ve mostly hated for a long time, so I generally use that once a week. My attention now is consumed mostly by WhatsApp, I spend a lot of time chatting to my friends.
My eyes are almost always glued to my screen, and I’m not the only one, I look around and everyone is pressing, tapping or swiping. This is nothing new, many have been wailing about this phenomenon, the way technology hijacks our attention and exploits our evolutionary weaknesses and needs. We are hit with so many things every minute, it is much harder for us to sustain our attention on anything. Distraction is only a swipe and a tap away and we are forever fiending for a fix.
We think we use our phones, but really, they use us. They follow us, they stalk us, they market to us. All these apps and social networks take our attention, condition our behavior, generate and map out our data, they eventually end up knowing more about us than we do about ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari highlights in his book ’21 Lessons for the 21stCentury’, we are now the ones being hacked by big corporates and technologies.
Before, we hacked technologies and networks, now humans are the ones being hacked. These technologies and algorithms understand us better and better, from our location, to our searches, to our health tracking data, it is becoming easier and easier to nudge us in directions without our conscious knowledge. In a world evolving faster and faster, we are increasingly vulnerable.
I was listening to a Gary Vee interview a few weeks back, and someone asked him who the best people in the social media game were, who was doing the marketing right. And for about 30 seconds, he couldn’t come up with one name, and he said the reason he could not actually point to anyone was because he actually consumes no one. Think about that, one of the biggest names right now in the world of entrepreneurship, famous for the sheer volume of content he puts out (100 pieces per day), and his insistence on the underpriced nature of most social platforms, does not consume social media. Mind blown.
What does he consume? He consumes the comment section of his content, he engages with his people and learns what they are thinking and feeling, or he consumes the comment sections of the biggest things in the world trying to place a finger on the pulse of the current zeitgeist.
That is a massive and powerful mental shift. And something I heard echoed again in The Order of Man podcast with Tyler Harris yesterday. Producers are usually too busy producing to consume content mindlessly. And that is something you can do to shift the control back to yourself. These tools are massively powerful. You have access to a potential audience, you have access to knowledge, you can create and build almost anything by reading the books, watching the tutorials, listening to the podcasts, it is an incredible time to be alive, if you actually take advantage of it. Become a producer, be active, build something, give value, make content, do things, and you will have less toleration for random consumption.
I have seen it happen in my life. I mentioned earlier how much I reach for my phone, I know people who reach for their phones even more. I’ve noticed my time reduce drastically on social media over the years the more I follow my path, the more I make content, the more I learn and execute around my business. The more I learn and create, the more I want to learn and create, and the less time or inclination I have to be swallowed up in the machine.
The sentiments have been echoed by many writers and thinkers. Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ advocates the ability to turn everything off and focus deeply on solving a meaningful problem. I wrote a post almost a year ago on why ‘Airplane Mode’ is one of the greatest productivity hacks.
In addition to this, you can practice more mindfulness. Don’t touch your phone for the first hour after you wake up. Do something else, read, meditate, exercise, eat, or just stare at the ceiling, you will be bored to tears, but you won’t die. Wean yourself off the addiction to your phone and reclaim your power and your attention. Then deploy it towards that which is truly important to you. It will transform your life.
This isn’t the blog I wanted to write this week. I had planned to write something about the art of end year reviews, and new year strategies. But as I drafted that blog, I found myself writing for pages and pages with no clear resolution to the ideas and themes I was trying to communicate. So here I am writing about something else.
The first time I ever blogged was in 2010. I started on wordpress.com, and in 2011 I believe, I got my own domain and moved my blog to it. I’ve written every year since then, but very sporadically, with months in between posts sometimes. I’ve never really known why I blog, just that something within me compels me to. I do sense I do it as a way to understand and express myself better. Those earlier posts were about me trying to figure out life and many of them became part of the book I published this year – The Meaning of Life and other such nonsense.
Around this time last year, I set the intention to blog every week. This came as part of a larger theme I was pursuing – executing ideas. In fact, I dubbed 2018 as the year of execution for me. And now at the end of the year, I have been mostly successful at blogging every week. Sure a few weeks I failed, but when I did, I made up for it the subsequent week.
So, what have I learned from a year of consistent blogging?
Making a decision to consistent action like blogging every week is a commitment. It says I have given my word to do this thing, and come rain or sun, I just have to do it. Many times, I sat to blog with no idea of what to write, but I just had to sit and push through it. At the expense of other things. Whether it was easy or hard. Whether I was tired or refreshed. Even when I felt I had nothing to say. Some days it felt like punishment. Some days it was a grueling process. But I said I would blog, and so I did. Week in, week out, I sat down, and I wrote.
Adjust your expectations – Start small
The original plan was actually to produce multiple pieces of content and post at least 3 times a week across multiple platforms. And for the first few weeks, I did that, making images, doing the usual Monday motivation pieces, and doing book reviews every other week. But I quickly found that that was a bit unwieldy for me. I’m not a full-time blogger, I have multiple clients and projects on my plate at any point in time, so I decided to strip down my intention to its most basic form. If I could just post an article a week for a whole year, that would be fine for me, that would create the baseline habit I need to expand down the line.
Create a system
To tackle this commitment properly, I had to build some kind of system to help me capture ideas, flesh them out and eventually post them. This system evolved over time and was abandoned at some points, but it has acted as a guiding framework in this journey. I decided to blog around a theme – ‘How to Get What You Want’ as a golden thread across most of my posts. Prior to this, I had blogged whenever the inspiration hit me. Now having to produce every week, I could not rely on inspiration, I had to create a system. Having a theme helped me to generate ideas ahead of time, and to organize my thoughts. I broke down the year into four sub-themes, and at each point, I would look over what I had been writing to see if I was still on theme and if writing according to theme was even working.
This happened somewhat accidentally for me. The mental state I need to be in to write is very different from the mental state I use to design or go about my daily business. I need time to reflect, to laze around, to think, to allow the insights to bubble up to the surface so I can write them down. I quickly realized that to write, I had to journal first, I had to get all the different thoughts in my head down so I could clear the space, calm the mind long enough to create content. So that became my ritual. The day before I posted, usually Sundays, I would spend some time reflecting and journaling, and then I would write. This ritual evolved to also become the time I used to reflect on my goals and plan the coming week. The act of blogging consistently somehow created this new powerful ritual in my life which set the stage for successes in other areas.
Trust the process
Many times, I sat down, and I had no clue about what I was going to write about. But I trust the creative process. I know I don’t have to know. I just have to start. And as I write, the thoughts begin to form and they build on each other, and before I know it, I have a whole post. It has taught me to face the blank page and the blank canvas with faith, and step into the unknown, trusting that the creative muse will be there to reward me.
Blogging as a personal development tool
The most surprising thing blogging has done for me is aid in my personal development. I view the process of personal branding as an exercise in self-creation. It allows you to think deeply about the life and impact you want to have, and then put out content or value in that direction. This process deepens your understanding of your values and ideas and allows them to sink even deeper into your heart and soul. The more I write, the more I understand. I become stronger, wiser, more articulate. The effect snowballs into positive habits in other parts of my life. It has been absolutely instrumental in my personal growth this year. They say if you really want to learn something, teach it.
Push through the slump
By mid-year, I was sure I was done. I did not have anything to write about. I had exhausted the initial list of ideas I made at the start of the year, and now I was stuck. And this persisted for a month or two. How was I going to get to the end of the year if I had no more ideas? But then they started trickling in again. Ideas birth more ideas, and then they began to multiply and flow like a torrent, and suddenly one random night, I even had my theme for next year. Creativity is a renewable resource, the more you use it, the more you have. Even when it seems to dry up, trust the process, take a step back if you need to, the well will refill itself again.
My thoughts have become deeper, and consequently, it is a little harder to write. On one level, I am a better and faster writer…I think. I am drafting this post in one sitting, in less than 45 minutes. At the same time, the ideas I’m trying to express are more complex and more intertwined, as evidenced by the blog I actually started off this week writing. Some concepts need more than just a blog post, they need a series or a mini book. Some concepts are just too big to be made too simple.
People pay attention
Even when they don’t comment or message or reply. I bump into old friends sometimes, and it invariably comes up. ‘Oh, I see your blog man, I see what you been writing, its dope, very inspirational, keep it up’. And I’m like, ‘oh’ you have been reading? I had no clue’. But people pay attention. People keep tabs. And somehow, it’s helped my business because it keeps me top of mind, they see a post and then they remember, ‘oh Oto designs too, let me actually hit him up for this or that.’
It is okay to experiment
For a brief few weeks, I started a podcast with the Anchor app, turning my blog posts into audio form. It was an interesting experience, and eventually just fell off because like I said, I have a lot to do usually. I really could have pushed it more, but I decided to return my focus to just posting an article every week. Doing audio as well would mean an extra layer of workflow and things to consider. But it is certainly something I will bring back in 2019 in full force.
As much as possible, shorten the time between idea and execution
The day I attended the Nelson Mandela lecture with Obama as the speaker, I returned quite pumped. In chatting with a friend about it later that day, I had the idea to write about the experience and blog about my thoughts. Even though I had already blogged for that week. The next morning, I had the post up. I knew that if I waited, the idea would fade, and I won’t get it done. Same thing with the post about Absa’s rebrand. The brand was launched, off a conversation again, I decided to write about it, and soon after I posted my thoughts. I don’t always succeed, but as much as possible, I try to shorten the time between idea and execution. Sometimes you have to move fast and capture lightning in a bottle.
Don’t be afraid to switch it up
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I wanted to write something else this week. But as I worked on that idea more and more, I realized it needed more time to cook. So, this morning, it hit me, just write about the other thing instead, then take the week to finish working out the other idea. Plus, this post was much easier to write.
In conclusion, I’ve never written for the sake of an audience. I don’t lust after building my numbers, although at a later stage it will be a bit more important to me. All of this has been for the sake of execution, for the sake of building consistency. This is simply the foundation. Many times, people want to push me to monetize or promote, and I say not yet. Right now, I write for me. I write because I am compelled to. I don’t know where this road will lead. Just that I must walk it. And as I take a step, the next step opens up to me. If only one person read my posts and got something from it, that is amazing in itself to me. That someone would take the time to read, in a world full of distraction, with easier to read and more entertaining options out there, or an Instagram feed to get lost in. So, if you have been reading so far, I appreciate every read, every share and every reply. One of you has shared my post every week without fail, thank you. Many of you have messaged me when I was late with a post, thank you too. Thank you for being with me on this journey so far. There is so much more to come.
Personally, I’m a lazy artist. I want the biggest bang for my buck. I want to do the absolute minimum and still make an impact. That’s why I love Jean Michel Basquiat. His work is proof that you can paint with the proficiency of a 5-year old, and still make a statement worth listening to. Also, doesn’t he look like what would emerge if Kid Cudi and The Weeknd did the fusion dance?
Basquiat was an incredibly gifted artist, cut short in his prime (he died at 27) and namechecked by rappers ever since. His work was distinctive, full of childlike youthful energy, irreverent, and seemingly nonsensical, but also revealing a profound knowledge and respect of art, its history and social commentary. In 1980s New York, an electric nexus of time and space, Basquiat emerged as an unlikely artistic force, rising as a black man, from the grimy streets, to global stardom.
He is the quintessential example of the artist who throws himself with reckless abandon into his work. Moving out of home for good as a teen, he spent most of his young adult life basically being a bum, surviving off money picked up in the streets, and immersing himself in the culture and the scene of the time, bouncing from place to place and party to party. His early creative efforts included cryptic haikus scribbled in graffiti under the moniker Samo scattered all over the city, as well as experimental live music with his band (none of them could actually play an instrument, but that was part of the appeal).
He is charming, talented with a keen air of innocence, and he befriends and eventually moves in with his sort-of-girlfriend, Suzan. At this point he had progressed from graffiti to full on painting at the insistence of another friend. Suzan worked and paid the bills, while he spent his time painting. And it is this one anecdote about his life that really earned my respect. Basquiat was too broke to afford canvasses, so he would salvage broken doors, windows, fridges, scraps of paper, tins, anything with a surface he could paint on. He didn’t wait to get proper canvases, or the right kind of paint or tools. He worked with whatever he could find.
If you really want to create, if you really want to do something. You just do it.
That is the crux of true creativity, its raw essence. The true artist doesn’t allow a lack of resources to become an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, we are drawn to such art-forms, pieces made with the scrappiest, bare essentials, because through all the limitations, and perhaps, even because of then, we can see the passion shine through, we can see the potential. We see a brave artist battling against his restrictions, turning his obstacles into stepping stones that pave his way. Basquiat has nowhere to paint, so he turns an abandoned fridge into a priceless work of art.
This same energy you have to bring to your life and to your work. If you have ambition, a burning desire to create something that resonates, that has impact, if you want to devote your life to the mastery of a skill or an artform, or a career, you start where you are, you work with what you have.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can
The biggest companies on the planet right now all started small. The origins of the slick phone you’re reading this on now can be found in a dinky garage decades ago with a bunch of nerds, hippies, and a couple pieces of hand-assembled circuit boards. Facebook the almost omnipresent behemoth it is now, started in a dorm room. The colossus that is Amazon started in a garage with doors as its first desks, Jeff Bezos packing books with his team to fulfil customer orders. The first Star Wars movie was produced with a shoe string budget and a lot of DIY.
Our problem too often is that we want perfection right out the gate, before we have earned it, and we want to do it with the absolute best tools. We think we need the light ring and DSLR camera before we start the youtube channel, the best mic and mixers before we start the podcast. So we don’t start.
Or we are insecure in our creative ability, and so hide behind our lack of tools. Sure, the right tools do help, but it is the artist that precedes the tools. A writer who knows what he is doing will do a lot more damage with an ordinary pen than a talentless hack with a Mont Blanc. You cannot hide your lack of skill behind expensive tools, but you can use the lack of tools as an excuse to procrastinate. You just have to begin. If you are really good, the world will respond, and better tools will present themselves to you.
Every master was once a disaster.
T Harv Eker
We all have to start from somewhere.
If you waited till everything was perfect and you had all the resources, you will be waiting forever. And even if you did get it – the perfect studio, the perfect lab, the right writing chair, you wouldn’t know what to do with it. At most, you would churn out works of stunning mediocrity. The tools don’t make the artist, the work makes the artist. The lack of tools is a gift. You get to work with the scrap, failing, prototyping, learning, crashing, rising up, drafting and tearing up, you need the grind, you need the work, because that is where you hone your skill. That is where you work around the obstacles, that is where you distil and learn the principles of your craft.
I started my design journey on dinky little Toshiba laptop (that was everything to me then by the way), a pirated copy of photoshop, and a design magazine. Now, I type this to you from a MacBook Pro. But it was all the work I designed on that first Toshiba, and then a PC, and then this sexy huge white Dell I had, that allowed me to finally get my first MacBook and then another one, and now, all the bells and whistles I need to create.
The obstacle is the way.
Creativity is just as much about limitations as it is about infinite exploration. The searching and playing around is an important part of the process. It is necessary to go far and wide in ideation. But it is the limitations – the brief, the deadline, the boundaries that really focus us and unleash the creative power to combine ideas, materials, colours to create something inventive, something remarkable.
With inventiveness and creativity, you can make the limitations you face a distinguishing feature in your work. Don’t have enough money for different colours? Limit your palette. Can’t make the special effects you really want? Hack it and let it have a DIY vibe to it. Whatever the obstacle is, use it to your advantage.
You don’t have to be fancy. You just have to begin. Even Basquiat started by painting on abandoned doors.
Every day, something new is created in the world. The effects of most of these – events, inventions, products, and new knowledge are linear. They build on top of what has been done before, what we know for sure is possible. They improve, they optimize, they make things slightly better. Then there are those events, inventions, and breakthroughs that are simply revolutionary. They spark an incredibly far reaching change in a relatively short period of time. They upend everything we understand and take for granted about the world and open up new possibilities.
To innovate is part of human nature. Forever restless and full of creative energy, we are always inventing. Major milestones in our history like the development of language, the written word, the concept of money, modern finance, the printing press, gunpowder, electricity, the steam engine, the electric bulb, the computer, the internet, the smartphone, and space travel did not just make our lives better, they radically transformed them.
I’ve been reading an incredible book lately – My Vision by Mohammed bin Rashid Maktoum. It’s a book about the thematic ideas guiding the growth and development of the UAE and Dubai. I don’t pay enough attention to world politics and global trade, but between this book, talking to people, being home and looking at things with fresh ‘outsider’ eyes, I am inspired, and I have ideas. It is apparent, there is a clear way to development, growth and wealth creation on the African continent, if we can fix the underlying issues of leadership, unity, vision, commitment and political will.
Every great achievement or victory does not happen by accident. From the global stage to our personal lives, they happen as a result of an ambitious vision backed with real work ethic. Painstakingly, with great effort and perseverance, despite obstacles and set-backs, great heights can be attained. But it begins with vision, the ability to see the unseen, and to imagine what does not yet exist.
It is no easy task. It is much easier to match the status quo, to say, let us rise to this benchmark, the set standard. We have seen what an efficient company looks like, so let us imitate and build one like it. We know what functioning healthcare systems behave like, so let us create one just like it. And that certainly does work. A big part of personal growth is the idea of modelling winning behavior. Look for people who have what you want and model how they live. The problem with that, is that where you can go is capped by what has already been done.
The visionary studies the best solutions and thinking and then pushes them even further. The visionary stretches the imagination to create something never achieved before.
When you face a challenge that demands a solution or a decision, you have two choices – you can either emulate the example set by others, or use your own creativity and intelligence to formulate a new idea.
– Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (My Vision)
To rise from bottom in our lives and as a nation or a continent, we must reclaim the pioneering spirit. It is not enough to be like the greats, we have to go where no one has gone before. We have to be committed to doing more and going further. It can be as basic as being a pioneer for excellence in a surrounding sea of mediocrity. Or as boundary pushing as changing the game. Why settle for good enough, why not shoot to be the best? Why stop at building a great company, why not revolutionize the entire industry?
One way of thinking is incremental, the other is exponential.
If you want to lead, if you want to get ahead, then you must go even further, take the pioneering and creative approach. Break the rules, change the playing field.
Be an instigator.
Start something new. Let the world be different and better because of it. Even if it is just your neighborhood, or your company, or your class.
Be a pioneer.
Sure, you will be mocked, you will become a target. The pioneer disrupts the status quo. By her very existence, she throws shade on everyone else who is passive and subservient to the system. You will be misunderstood, you might even be accused of terrible things, of being foolish, reckless, or willingly seeking to harm or exploit people. But pioneer you must anyway.
First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.
– Nicholas Klein
It is easy to color in the lines, and do as you are told. Sit still, blend in, don’t ruffle feathers or stir up the pool. But pioneers, the ones who stoke the fire in their bellies are the ones who expand our understanding of what is possible. They end up building higher than we have ever seen and exploring depths we have never imagined. They expand our world.
But it takes huge vision, ambitious vision, crazy vision. And faith, faith that it is possible, faith that if we work hard at it, confident in its resolution, this project will take shape, this obstacle will fall, and a new era will dawn.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
– Rob Siltanen
We live in an exciting time. Sure, we have tremendous challenges, unsolved problems, deepening inequality, crises in climate, in economics, in politics, in finance, in development. All around the world. With these challenges also come tremendous opportunity, to think differently, and pioneer new paradigms. For the first time in history, we are connected to each other and to storehouses of knowledge at a bigger scale than ever before. It is the age of ideas, and it is our inspired ideas that will change our lives radically. If we do not become pioneers, we will fall even further behind.
If our sole goal is to attain the level others have reached, then we are setting our target too low…Do not fool yourselves into believing that we are moving forward when we are only keeping up with general trends, while the real opportunities are slipping away.
– Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (My Vision)
To be a pioneer means to embrace the unknown, to trust instinct and curiosity, to try over and over and fail, and try again. To embrace every obstacle not as an invitation to stop, but as a challenge to solve. To work harder than anyone else but driven by passion, by love and obsession. It is hard work, but it is worthy work.
Reclaiming the pioneer spirit means that you are not limited to solving problems you have seen before. But you can confidently face the future and tackle completely new and left-field scenarios because you have the mental toolkit and resources to meet the challenge and create transformational solutions.
And in case you thought it was the work of the lone ranger, the lone genius working in the basement, know that it is also born of community, of a shared belief and shared hope for a collective destiny. A pioneering group of people united will build the world of the future.